For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected a quartet of hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. Heartiest congratulations to all.
Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”
Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young. Although he never left Chicago, his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.
I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”
I had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994, a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet at the Village Vanguard with Michael Weiss on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Greg Hutchinson on drums. The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I’ve interpolated a few of Von’s remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]
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I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.
But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.
VF: Well, those guys are great, man. And they listen. To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.
It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands. Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.
VF: Oh, yes. But that’s old-fashioned, actually. All the older cats did that.
Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?
VF: No. What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era. I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.
When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?
VF: Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era. I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.
Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?
VF: Oh, like Horace Henderson.
Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.
VF: That’s right. And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to rehearse a band! And I was amazed. Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band. He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen. All you got to do, young man, is listen.” He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind. 17, you know. I was ready to blow, baby! He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”
And man, let me tell you something. I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing. Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting. But it wasn’t loud. It was weird! It was eerie. These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano. And you could hear every note he played. Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing. They were just playing like they were in their living room. And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.
So I try to inject that. Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands. Ooh, that disturbs me. I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.
Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?
VF: Oh, sure.
Were people willing to pass down information to you?
VF: Oh yeah. They were beautiful.
Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you? Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.
VF: Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way. Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year. And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…
Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.
VF: Yes. Oh, listen, just so many guys. I couldn’t begin to name them all. Because at that time, the information was freely given. Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future. Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified. Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway. You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.
As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…
VF: Oh, yes.
…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.
VF: Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players. Everybody plays tenor.
But you never repeat yourself! So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett? And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930’s?
VF: Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago. We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable. Because they had these school districts. And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!
A democratic disciplinarian.
VF: That’s right! But he taught by osmosis more than anything. He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline. And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.
You’d been playing music since you were little.
VF: Oh yeah. I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.
And music was in your family.
VF: Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone. Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.
So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.
VF: Yes. Because my father actually dug concert music, see. The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se. I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers. So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.
When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side? There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.
VF: Oh yes, I played in some things. But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio. Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio. And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country. So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more. Duke was always on the radio. You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.
A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.
VF: That’s right. Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side. I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands. When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something. And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person. Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.
Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?
VF: Actually, they were mostly trumpet players. See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years. And Hot Lips Page, man. You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band. And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say. And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.
He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930’s, too.
VF: Yes. So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band. All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader. See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders. I would call them front men. But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen. It shouldn’t be a command. It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.
Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.
VF: Of course.
When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?
VF: Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s. But now, Prez….
How did they know each other?
VF: You know, I never knew. My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them. You know, he was a hanger. He’d hang out with them. He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything! So he was hanging with the cats all the time. And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.
Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal. Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me. We all knew Prez’s solos note for note. We’d stand there, and Prez would run out. Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out. Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways. We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!
But Prez was beautiful, man. I was crazy about him personally. Hawk, too. And Ben Webster was one of my favorites. See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players. Because I have so many favorites.
One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer. From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control. How do you do that? Is it a lip thing? Do you do it with the fingering?
VF: Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.” But I just think that’s a Chicago thing. Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that. To me, we all sound something alike. I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger. Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do. Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing. Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing. But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was. And it would sound like an arrangement. I’d say, “How did he do that?” Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death. And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level. I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing. I’d say, “What’s going on here?” But it’s just that man was so powerful. Roy Eldridge was so powerful. Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.” Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in. And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”
Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.
VF: Oh, yes.
So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago. That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?
VF: Yes, it did.
Was it 52 weeks a year?
VF: Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time. I was glad to have it, I’m telling you! And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help. They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.” So it was beautiful.
And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone. You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.
One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play. And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.” I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.” And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous. And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints! But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone. And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions. But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know. So I find myself giving cats the same thing.
VF: Yeah. You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it! But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me. He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.” It’s best to let people find it. If they don’t find it, well, hey.
[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.
VF: Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually. Well, I’m older than he is. But it’s generally the same era. And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young. So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck. Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything. And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?” I said, “Hey, how do I know?” So that’s the way that was.
[MUSIC: “It Could Happen To You” (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]
I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood! But it’s all a part of saxology. Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.
People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.
Well, thank you. But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really. I just go with the flow. That’s what I try to do. I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands. See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to earn a living. So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.
I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…
VF: Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?” But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it. So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself. Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people. Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.
Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.
VF: Yes, I certainly have. And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it. So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself. And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.
One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.
I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.
See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!
That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..
VF: Oh yes.
He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.
VF: Oh, yes. Oh, man, the Jug! Jug’s one of my heroes of all time. See, the Jug came from a musical family. His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons. And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano. I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier. She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.” I said, “Really?” And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords. That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords. Because I always played by ear. They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know. And she started me out. And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.
Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family. Plus, the Jug was a great dude. He used to take me aside, give me gigs. It was funny, man. He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?” I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…” “Not you again!” But I survived it, see. But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.
Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.
VF: Oh, that’s another one of my heroes. Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous. He’d been playing two hours! That’s the kind of genius he is. Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center. I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics. A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing. But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself. That really boosted my career. Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks. But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.
That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…
That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.
VF: Oh, surely. Surely. So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there. But it was just beautiful. The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”
Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes. He taught me so much about saxophone. See, I toured with Sonny. A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude. He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less. But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.
Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read. It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family. My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948. During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things. I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.” What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?
Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much. I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing. And that’s where I first met him. And I said, “Man, you play beautifully. What’s your name?” He told me. And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs. Will you make them with me?” He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you. I’m not much of a band player. I’m a trio player.” I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.” He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so. And I just thought he was just great. Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano. Beautiful little cat.
Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.
VF: Oh, man, the same difference. The same difference. I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there. The piano player didn’t show up. I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.” He said, “Well, you play the piano.” And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano. And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.” I said, “Who is this?” And it was this little cat. I said, “Come on over here, man.” Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed. See, he’s a harmonic genius. And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know. I said, “Man, what…? So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York. A great, great player. Never got his due. But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.
In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.
VF: Yes. And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York. Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris. So Chris was one of the cats.
One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.
He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.
I know he liked Chick Webb, and he liked Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have. They can play dramatically but still not be blaring. It’s sort of like playing the trumpet. Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire. So I think of the drums the same way. See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise. They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing. Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter. And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire. And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!